Managing Strength Training Stressors: Maximizing Peak Performance

How to you adjust and taper training stressors to maximize peak athletic performance.

An important part of any trainee’s development is managing the level of exertion or stress to apply in programming workouts while maximizing the period of peak performance. This requires an understanding of the factors at play including time available for training, the trainee’s mindset and the potential for stress, meaning how receptive the trainee is to being pushed at any particular point in a training cycle. So, how do you adjust and taper training stressors to maximize peak athletic performance?

Ted Sloan – Strength and Power Diminish at Different Rates

The degree to which a trainee can be set up for the highest potential for success is reliant on many factors. As with any trainee, time is of the essence and a great periodization program is only truly as good as the commitment and attention afforded by the athlete.

Young trainees require a significantly different form of exercise in order to perform to their maximum potential, and in theory are truly far from their potential. It’s important to ensure that the advanced trainee is as powerful and strong as possible going into the most important parts of the season and to an extent, this can be a goal or attempted with a younger trainee. Unfortunately, this can be a difficult task with many trainees in the private sector, considering most trainees will cease training as the season for the sport begins.

Trainees of under a year of training age will require significantly more attention to movement and reactive agility, while strength and power can often be increased at a rapid pace with minimal attention in these untrained groups. The ability to predict and react to an opponent can make a greater difference for these trainees than attempting to max out their squat and deadlift.

When working with a trainee who can commit at least 12 weeks, I will begin their training program by going through a grueling preparation phase, Then, I will have them perform a maximal strength phase that I’ll combine with some basic power exercises and culminate with a maximal power period. If my trainee can make it to the gym consistently, I would hope to finish this phase after 9 weeks and use 2 weeks to condition my trainee in a manner congruent with power and strength.

During our final week I like to taper my athletes down by performing high intensity movements with a significant drop in volume. If limited on time, and my athlete has an advanced training age, we will often be forced to combine training styles by either using Westside’s Conjugate Method or Contrast training, in which both strength and power are often combined back to back.

The taper will consist of only one week of lower volume, but continued use of high intensity in this situation. Different trained attributes such as strength and power diminish at different rates, with power declining most rapidly. As a result, power should always be a focus towards the end of a training period leading into a season, the playoffs or a championship game.

Giulio Palau – Focus and Determination are Finite and Exhaustible

Any well-designed periodization program will include phases of increased and decreased stress on the body to allow for proper breakdown and subsequent recovery, ultimately resulting in adaptation and increased performance.

One often overlooked aspect of periodization is the tapering of acute variables between phases of the program or before competition. If executed properly, tapering can allow for the subject to properly recover from an intense training phase without de-conditioning.

A tapering phase can last anywhere between 1-4 weeks. This brief period of calculated rest has been shown to increase performance by 2-5% in trained athletes, which can be a major advantage in high-level competition. The most important training variables to consider in tapering are: volume, frequency, and intensity.

Studies have shown that athletes tend to respond favorably to tapering of volume and frequency after a phase of high intensity training. However, significant reductions in intensity (as usually measured by % of 1RM) have been associated with a loss of overall strength and power. A phase of high intensity training before tapering is crucial to ensure that significant adaptations are occurring during the de-loading period.

A well rested athlete at the end of a proper tapering phase should be ready for peak performance, and tapering should be coordinated accordingly to rest and prepare for competition or another phase of high intensity training. Often overlooked are psychological factors that correlate with physical exertion and recovery.

Focus and determination should be considered as resources that are both finite and exhaustible. Just like the more concrete components of physiological stress, mental preparedness should correlate with the peak and tapering of physical exertion. A trainee can only be at peak performance very briefly, and the relevant acute variables should be adjusted strategically to ensure that peak performance is achieved when necessary.

The psychological state of a trainee is not only relevant to their performance, it is key. The strategy of manipulating stressors (exertion) to peak and taper for optimal performance and recovery is, therefore, key to any discipline, and should not be underestimated in the abstract forms of discipline, focus, and motivation.

Antonio Squillante – Peaking Happens for a Limited Time

Athletic performance is a beautiful combination of skills, strength, speed, and endurance. Cognitive and physical attributes need to be developed in order to improve athleticism, the ability to perform sport specific skills with the highest chances of success and the least amount of effort. This is, in its very essence, the definition of “talent” in sport – when it all comes down to a handful of fundamental motor skills – but also as in music, art, maths and any other form of intelligence. Therefore, ultimately, the condition sine qua non for improving performance in sport becomes a question of dedication and commitment.

With that being said, a great deal of time needs to be invested in training different aspects of athleticism:

Cognitive factors Defining the ability to process information
Neuromuscular factors Providing the ability to generate muscular strength while increasing speed
Metabolic factors Eventually, improve the ability to provide energy to convert into work

A very complicated orchestra of physiological systems led by an absolute prima donna: the endocrine system, the kingmaker in the process of adaptation and supercompensation that leads to an overall improvement in work capacity. Peaking, tapering and even periodization itself are nothing but axioms (theories, to a certain extent) based on the fundament process of “stress management” also known as fight or flight response or GAS, general adaptation syndrome.

For each physiological system involved in the process of supercompensation that ultimately leads to an improvement in sports performance, there is a certain amount of stress (training) that needs to be provided for adaptation to occur. A process that is, by definition, reversible and therefore temporary and transient.

No matter how good a periodization system is, a trainee can only be at the very peak of his/her preparedness for a very limited amount of time. A consequence of a great deal of asynchronism between the physiological response of different systems, that makes challenging to time loading and unloading in such a way that positive transfer of training is maximized while deterring is minimized.

So many concepts to provide only one answer. What I feel comfortable saying is: trainees, no matter how advanced they might be, can only peak for a very limited amount of time (48-72 hours) and they can only peak for a limited amount of events per year (2 to 3). The question is then: “when is it really necessary to peak and when is it not?”

Theodore Sloan, Antonio Squillante, and Giulio Palau are three up and coming young coaches, part of a vanguard of new minds coming into the industry. They will approach a coaching tactic or strategy from a different perspective and share their insights here. If you have a training subject you would like to see addressed by these guys, send an email to [email protected] with #ThinkReps in the subject line.